Drink + Eat: The business up food and drink Up North.

We raise our glasses to longtime contributor Cari Noga, whose monthly Michigan Grapevine column provided years of regional wine news and commentary to our readers. She leaves a big wine glass to fill, but we feel confident that TCBN Head Writer Lynn Geiger, who will helm this new incarnation, Drink & Eat, will fill it well.

With this January issue, we are once again dedicating a page in this publication to local food and beverages. Not only delicious, the local food/wine/ beer/spirits/milk industry is critically important to this region's vitality. Look at wine alone: Northern Michigan is home to some 900 acres of vineyards, which produce more than 150,000 cases of wine annually. Our agribusiness is big business, and we plan to keep tabs on it right here, every month.

To launch the inaugaral Drink + Eat column, I took a quick spin around northern Michigan's food and drink landscape to find some new products and happenings in 2010. Here's what to watch for:

– The state's first custom crush facility is now in full production in Leelanau County. French Road Cellars in Lake Leelanau is owned by Doug and Laura Matthies and is making wine for five other local wineries including Chateau Fontaine, which is owned by Matthies' parents. The winemaker is Shawn Walters, currently winemaker at Forty-Five North, consulting winemaker for Longview Winery, and owner of One World Winery Consulting.

Matthies says demand for a purely production operation is here-with a lot of upstart, tiny vineyards that can't afford a full production facility, established wineries that need more room (i.e. Chateau Fontaine), and fruit Matthies needs to process from his other operation, Big Paw Vineyard Services.

РOld Mission Peninsula's Chateau Chantal recently released a couple of new beverages: first, a 19 percent alcohol dessert drink called Entice, made with its Riesling Ice Wine and estate-made brandy, that is then aged in oak. It's a way to experiment with the flavors of Ice Wine at a lower price, $35.99 for a 500 ml bottle. Also new is a Ros̩ of Malbec from Chateau Chantal's Argentine vineyard, of which it acquired full ownership last fall.

– Black Star Farms this month announces its first ever release of a 10-Year Apple Brandy aged in American oak. Flavors of sweet wood, apple and caramel complement this traditional style brandy. Only 300 bottles were produced. Black Star also moved its still from its Leelanau County location to its Old Mission Peninsula facility, where all brandies are now being processed.

– Mitten Wine Logistics, the Traverse City-based distributor of Michigan-only wines, has been sold to Griffin Beverage Company in West Branch. The company was founded by Eddie Baur in 2006, and Scott Fochtman joined him in '07. They split the next year, and Fotchman took sole control of the company.

While the business model was good, the company was underfunded, Fotchman says, and he sold it last summer. In addition to long-term relationships with Chateau Grand Traverse and Black Star Farms, Griffin now has distribution rights for local wineries Chateau de Leelanau, Isadore's Choice (made by Lee Lutes at Black Star), Raftshol Vineyards, and Silver Leaf Vineyard & Winery.

– 2 Lads Winery at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula is launching its vintage sparkling wine program this year. The first samples expected three years down the road.

– Chef Eric Nittolo of the Old Mission Peninsula's Boathouse Restaurant has been busy shaking salt. He collaborated with founders Christopher and Tyler McVety of Beyond the Shaker, LLC, to create eleven original salt blends for the new gourmet food company. Beyond the Shaker specializes in unrefined sea salts and salt blends made from organic and sustainable ingredients. beyondtheshaker.com.

– Misha Neidorfler was pretty excited to see "bite-size/mini-desserts" as No. 4 on the 2010 Top 20 Trends in food and beverages, according to a National Restaurant Association chef survey. Neidorfler and husband Jeff, who opened Morsels in downtown Traverse City in April 2008, did their homework before opening the bite-sized bakery. "Research shows that the first two bites of a dessert are what really register with people. After that they just eat it because it's there," she says, so they figured out how to make those two bites worth it. It was a completely new product when they opened two years ago. Here's to being ahead of the curve!

Lynn Geiger is head writer at the Traverse City Business News. lgeiger@tcbusinessnews.com, 231-929-7919.

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